Decade-old tattoos tell of devotion, caste and defiance in India

Tue Jan 12, 2016 5:48am EST
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By Adnan Abidi

ARJUNI, India (Reuters) - Mahettar Ram Tandon is still proud of the indelible message he carries almost five decades after he had the name of the Hindu god Ram tattooed over his entire body.

Dressed in a simple white lungi, a traditional Indian garment, and wearing a peacock feather hat called a "mukut", Tandon is part of the Ramnami Samaj religious movement in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, one of India's poorest regions.

"It was my new birth the day I started having the tattoos," he says. "The old me had died."

To see the photo story, click:

Denied entry to temples and forced to use separate wells, low-caste Hindus in the Chhattisgarh first tattooed their bodies and faces more than 100 years ago as an act of defiance and devotion.

Ramnamis wrote Ram's name on their bodies as a message to higher-caste Indians that god was everywhere, regardless of a person’s caste or social standing.

Now 76, Tandon's purple tattoos have faded over decades under the harsh sun of his village of Jamgahan.

In the nearby village of Gorba, Punai Bai, 75, spent more than two weeks aged 18 having her full body tattooed using dye made from mixing soot from a kerosene lamp with water.   Continued...

Tiharu Ram, 70, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his face, poses for a picture outside his house in the village of Chandlidi, in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 16, 2015.  REUTERS/Adnan Abidi